Five months ago, I felt optimistic about one of Nintendo’s two New Super Mario Bros. titles. The other seemed far less impressive, lacking truly original ideas or execution. But that’s always been the challenge of this particular retro-themed series – can it simultaneously balance old school platforming while adding something we haven’t seen before?
If you asked me around E3 2012, I would have said New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo 3DS would accomplish that. New Super Mario Bros. U seemed to lack those qualities. True, it was the first HD Mario title, but its level design seemed uninspired, and allowing a fifth player to place blocks in the world through the GamePad was hardly something that seemed noteworthy.
Times have changed. Drastically.
Keep in mind New Super Mario Bros. 2 is not a bad game. But it’s fair to say it’s underwhelming and unremarkable. It squandered its ‘million coin’ gimmick, to the point where gamers had to effectively "grind for coins" to reach the lofty goal. That's a terrible thing to have to do in a platformer. The game simply wasn’t bold or brave enough with its unique angle. The entirety of the experience felt safe. And that’s not something this series can afford.
When NSMB2 proved disappointing, I still didn’t believe its Wii U counterpart would save it. Yet now, after spending several hours with the game, my entire impression of it has changed. This is precisely what this franchise needs. It’s simultaneously respectful of its heritage while adding numerous new ideas in what amounts to a fantastic mix. In fact, alongside ZombiU, New Super Mario Bros. U is now my most anticipated Wii U launch game.
Like I said, times have changed. Here’s why:
EMBRACING THE LEGACY
The Mario universe is so packed with ideas that Nintendo’s options are practically limitless. Because of that, the publisher is often judged equally on what it adds to that lore as well as the concepts it resurrects.
That’s why something new like the return of Big Island, the world of giants that originated in Super Mario Bros. 3, is just as important as the much-promoted Boost Mode. Actually, it’s probably more important, and ranks right up there (for me, at least) with the return of the traditional Raccoon Suit in NSMB2 or the Koopalings revival in NSMB Wii.
It’s clear that the team working on Mario’s inaugural Wii U adventure has a fondness for Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. A great fondness. And for someone like me, whose childhood was defined by those experiences, that’s great news. The Torpedo Teds. The vast, continuous overworld that stretches and offers branching paths. The return of the Koopalings. Monty Moles. Perhaps more than any ‘New Mario’ game before it, this one brings back elements of some of Mario’s greatest adventures –some of the best in gaming history – and runs with them. And we’ll all benefit from that.
I mentioned Koopalings. They’re back, and their boss battles retain the complexity Nintendo has brought to some of their more recent encounters. Morton Jr., for example, wields a giant hammer that can shape the platforms around you. But what’s more interesting is that the Koopalings aren’t your only boss threat.
I had just swept through and defeated one of Bowser’s so-called sons, and was moving to the next world. Suddenly, the King Koopa’s personal airship dived in from above, initiating a battle. It turns out that Bowser Jr. is prone to ambushing you at random. Although I had just bested a castle and its master, here I was engaged in another boss fight.
And Bowser Jr. was no slouch. This fight took place underwater, with Jr. in a Clown Submarine, launching torpedoes at me. Only by guiding these heat-seekers into my foe could I triumph, which was no simple task. Once again, NSMBU defies tradition while embracing it - and the game is far better because of it.
Nabbit is, quite simply, a thief. And you have to catch him if you want to recover the powerful prize he has stolen from the Toads – a P-Acorn that will give you the power of infinite flight. To do so you enter a stage you’ve already completed, this time risking life and limb to catch the little bugger.
Doing this is a bit harder than it looks, though for those of us who aren’t all that cautious when we play Mario games, this ‘mini-game’ of sorts feels right at home. Yet another twist, yet another success - chasing Nabbit is a thrill, and I found myself eagerly anticipating his sudden arrival, throwing caution to the wind in my pursuit of the purple-clad bunny creature.
MORE CHALLENGING THAN MEETS THE EYE
Mario’s so-called Story Mode is just the beginning of this adventure. And though the core game’s stages are nothing to scoff at, featuring level design that is significantly improved upon NSMB2, far better things await those of us who appreciate a good test of skill.
New Super Mario Bros. U features a Challenge Mode, which tasks you with insane, incredible objectives that will push Mario veterans to their limits. Each ‘level’ is very simple in its design and execution - say a single, narrow platform surrounded by spikes - with an insane request - like dodging fireballs thrown by two devious Fire Bros. You’re then graded, and assigned a bronze, silver or gold trophy based on your performance. In the aforementioned case of fire-dodging, you must survive for over 40 seconds to claim the best prize. It’s more challenging than you might expect, but it’s also considered one of the easiest tasks.
As you complete more of these objectives, more of them unlock in menus separated by broad type, such as a series focusing on Boost Mode, coin collecting, gathering 1-Ups or one simply called ‘Special’ - home to the Fire Bros. stage - and more twisted concepts.
The video above is yet another example from the ‘Special’ category. You certainly know Monty Mole, but this time you must get him to a goal. Simple enough, right? Except getting Monty to the finish involves placing him on a raft, where he will constantly charge at you. As you might expect, he can kill you - and you can likewise kill him, which you don’t want to do. Complicating matters is if you evade him poorly, he’ll blindly scamper right off that raft and into oblivion. Plus there are other enemies that board the raft, and obstacles that get in your way. Oh, and the raft has a capacity of two - if anything else gets on your aquatic vehicle, it stops moving. Good luck trying to stomp a Goomba when Monty is right behind you, by the way. Killing it and not him... not easy.
This is where New Mario U moves into a very interesting place. Its challenges are not entirely unlike some of the Coin Rush concepts in NSMB2, but they’re better, more inventive, and they get really, really hard. Try making it through a ‘Big Island’ level without killing a single creature. Try making it through a stage without touching the ground. What about using a single turtle shell to score a certain amount of extra lives? And that’s just the tip of the surface, as the biggest tasks remained locked to us.
That Nintendo thought to place these ideas in this game means its developers have realized its ‘New Mario’ series needed more than accessibility. It isn’t enough to have a few unlockables or alternate paths - the game needs something to satisfy those of us who will breeze through that Story Mode - which is definitely more difficult than previous New Mario games - in a weekend.
But they didn’t stop there...
A CONVERSATION ABOUT COINS
Coin Battle is yet another painfully simple concept: race to the end of a level and attempt to collect more coins than your friends. These levels are simply pulled from the main game - seemingly as you complete them or, perhaps, when you collect the three Star Coins tucked away in each.
Regardless, the levels progressively open offering you more and more of a playground to compete in. And that would be enough. But that’s not the end of this mode. For the first time ever, Nintendo will allow you to customize the level with coin placement. That’s right - you have hundreds of coins at your disposal, and can craft even crazier tasks for you and your friends, daring others to jump blindly off ledges or risk everything for just a little extra gold.
Sure, it’s not a full level editor, but even this amount of freedom in stages that are already exquisitely designed is the next best thing. And Nintendo retains the original concept on the menu as well, so if you wreck things with the editor, you can sheepishly go back to its initial iteration and pretend like you’re not terrible at game design.
And let’s face it - who here hasn’t sketched out some sort of Mario level on paper, complete with coins? Exactly. This mode is for the kid in all of us.